Cliff Holden, original photograph by Bryan Long

Cliff Holden

Documents: 2004

THE HISTORY OF THE BOROUGH GROUP

The Borough Group started in 1946 and disbanded in 1951. The idea of the Group arose out of conversations between Cliff Holden and David Bomberg during the years 1944 and 1945.

Holden responded to Bombergís paintings which he had seen in London Group exhibitions. What he came to recognise was that Bomberg's attitude to the creative act and the way he taught his practice were unique. There was nothing like this happening either in Britain, Paris, or New York, at that time. This was proved some 10 years later during the middle fifties, when American Action Painting, Tachism, and the New Abstract Expressionism reached London. Bomberg anticipated these movements, often using the same kind of terminology. But, compared to the American influence, Bomberg's ideas were much more fundamental and profound, which made possible a development outside the usual controversy surrounding the question of figuration or abstraction.

Holden first met Bomberg in 1944, almost by accident, while studying philosophy at the City Literary Institute and there, in the same building, was Bomberg teaching drawing to a group of middle-aged ladies. Holden asked to become his student and thereafter followed the Master, which was the opposite of the way most students operate; they go to art schools to be taught by many teachers who mostly teach what they think other artists practice. Holden's relation to Bomberg was similar to being an apprentice in a studio of an Old Master.

Previously Bomberg had been teaching at South East Essex College of Art in Dagenham and there he had two students, Dorothy Mead and Edna Mann, who had rebelled against his unorthodox methods. Before Bomberg left Dagenham they had a change of mind and they followed him to London to join Holden at the City Lit. These three were now his most enthusiastic and committed students.

Bomberg managed to get part-time teaching jobs at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) and at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Mann, Mead, and Holden followed Bomberg to the Borough and joined the architecture students in working from casts in the Victoria and Albert Museum and on outdoor sites in the City of London, such as St. Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and sites along the Thames.

When she left Dagenham, Mann had been offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but, after a year, because of opposition to Bomberg's ideas at the College, she was forced to give this up and consequently lost her grant. There was a conflict of loyalties and she chose Bomberg.

The foundation members of the Borough Group in 1946 were Cliff Holden, Peter Richmond, Dorothy Mead, and Edna Mann. In his capacity as the Master, Bomberg did not want to take an active part in the Group and refused to be a member or to take part in exhibitions, preferring the role of teacher and mentor.

Holden's purpose was to establish a closely integrated Group to work out the ideas that neither Bomberg himself, nor any single artist, could hope to realize in a single lifetime. The Group would provide a platform for furthering these ideas, making them accessible to the public, and, at the same time, it would be a vehicle for establishing Bomberg's students as professionals. To this end, both Holden and Mead recruited students from establishment schools and from the pubs of Soho. Of the founding members, Holden was the most active in conceiving and fostering the Group; in trying to arrange exhibitions, working out a policy and strategy, and writing the first of several manifestos. It was for the above reasons that Bomberg proposed Holden as the Group's first President and this was unanimously adopted.

Incidentally, since Bomberg's death, these manifestos have been attributed to Bomberg but, in fact, they were written by Holden and then revised and edited by Bomberg and the whole Group. For proof, apart from Holden's documentation, it is only necessary to compare the style of writing of these manifestos with the published Bomberg Papers.

After many refusals during 1946, the first exhibition was finally arranged in June 1947, due to the kindness and sympathy of Dr. Morris, at the Archer Gallery. The works shown were mainly from that year's London Group exhibition. Allen Stokes had one work included in this show due to a misunderstanding by Dr. Morris. Although Stokes was around the Group he was never at any time a member. Just before this show, the Group had enlarged to include Lilian Bomberg and a Polish Countess, Christine Kamienieska, and it was decided to hold an annual show and to show at other places wherever and whenever possible.

The next exhibition was held in the same year at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. All the above members took part except Kamienieska, who had left the Group after the first Archer show. In 1948 the second annual exhibition was also held at the Archer Gallery.

Following criticism from inside and outside the Group, Holden resigned as president and invited Bomberg to take over that responsibility. At this meeting the minutes of all previous meetings were mysteriously lost and were never found. The Group was then enlarged to include David Bomberg as President, Lilian Bomberg (Lilian Holt), Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, Peter Richmond, Edna Mann, Lesley Marr, Dinora Mendelson, Len Missen, and Dorothy Missen.

During 1948, the Group was invited to show at Brasenose College, Oxford. The whole Group participated in the L.C.C. Embankment show with some success, especially with press coverage, and both Lilian Bomberg and Cliff Holden were invited to appear on the BBC Radio programme In Town Tonight. Leslie Marr owned the Book Worm Gallery in Soho and very generously invited the Group to have monthly shows rent-free. These shows were not a success as no critics, press, or media came and almost no public, apart from a few friends.

At this time, Holden was teaching one evening a week in Lewisham. One student found Holden's teaching totally unacceptable and incomprehensible; but he had a friend who wanted to meet a "real artist" and he thought the friend would have more sympathy and understanding of Holden's ideas. The friend was Dennis Creffield aged 16 years. Holden introduced Creffield to Bomberg and he was proposed and elected to membership of the Borough Group which meant that, together with all the above members, he participated in the third annual exhibition, which was held at the Arcade Gallery in 1949. Dorothy Missen did not participate in this show as it was considered that she had not produced enough work of sufficiently high standard. Bomberg asked Edna Mann to resign from the Group on the grounds that she was pregnant and, as she was likely to become pregnant again, she had no possibility of becoming a professional painter.

In the spring of 1951, owing to disagreements over membership, future policy, and direction, it was decided to disband the Borough Group. It was proposed by Bomberg that the name "Borough Group" should never be used again. This was agreed but, nevertheless, Bomberg used the name "Borough" two years later when he formed the "Borough Bottega" in 1953.

Bomberg's class at the Borough Polytechnic was unique in that some self-financing students, several of whom founded the Borough Group, came not to a particular school but to a special master who happened to be there. In the beginning the class consisted of ex-servicemen financed by grants. These students followed the school curriculum which Bomberg and his closest followers rejected. Instead, Bomberg taught his practice in the way that Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger did in their open studios in Paris. But, Lhote and Leger bred imitators. However Bomberg was careful to guard against imitators and worked to release and develop the students' creative potential. He, therefore, rarely showed his work, and apart from a couple of works in London Group exhibitions, his students were unaware of what he painted or how it was executed. As a very special favour a privileged student would be taken to his home and shown one work to illustrate a particular point. Holden in particular was grateful for the invaluable hours spent in discussions with Bomberg which took place outside the class. Time and energy was given freely and with enthusiasm by Bomberg without any financial reward.

Many students were attracted to the Borough Group but did not become members. Many, like Eduardo Paolozzi, Jo Tilson, Peter Arnold, Michael Fussell, Karl Weschke, and Andrew Forge, were at first excited by the ideas and the work produced, but, perhaps because they didn't understand the activity and the kind of commitment required or could not tolerate the severe criticism that was meted out, they retreated back to the security of the establishment schools.

What was "legendary" about Bomberg's class at the Borough Polytechnic? The class itself would not have become "legendary" except that a few of its students created the Borough Group. It was the Borough Group that made it "legendary". Bomberg's success with his students was limited to those who chose him as master. The majority of the class was composed of ex-service men on grants and not only did they fail to understand Bomberg's teaching but they thought he was a joke and were either in opposition to him or ignored him. Even many coming from other colleges who had heard of the Borough Group soon drifted away.

Frank Auerbach came to Bomberg from St. Martinís at the end of 1947 and Leon Kossof followed him in 1952. What has not been recognised is that they gained more from the Group activity than directly from Bomberg. In spite of this, both refused to join the Group, preferring to stay firmly within the establishment, which, of course, in terms of commercial success and acclaim, paid off. Sadly they misinterpreted the ideas of the Group and Bombergís teaching, merely extracting from the activity the gimmick of thick paint. Their images, however, had more in common with those of Wilhelm de Kooning and Karel Appel than with Bomberg.

The Metzger brothers worked very closely with Holden and Bomberg for some years but did not join or exhibit with the Group. Max Metzger finally gave up art in favour of studying Agriculture. When the Borough Bottega started in 1953, Gus Metzger became a member and was very active for a while, becoming chairman before finally resigning. For reasons unknown he told many lies about Holden during this period, which served to further alienate Bomberg from Holden. Many years later, after Bomberg's death, Metzger apologized to Holden, admitted the lies, and signed a legal document to that effect. Metzger later became known as an Auto-Destructive artist.

[Page last updated: 24th September 2005]

© Cliff Holden 2004-2014